They got on famously at first, only for McLaren to favour the young pretender. Even so, John Watson is still in awe of former team-mate Alain Prost. Here ‘Wattie’ spills the beans on ‘the Professor’
I’d like to talk about Alan (he uses the English pronunciation) Prost,” says John Watson after some thinking time. He’s like that, always has been: he’s a thoughtful man. “There were some interesting things going on, you know.” The tone is slightly challenging.
“I first met Alain when he came to test the McLaren at Ricard late in 1979. It was between him and [American Formula Atlantic racer] Kevin Cogan for the seat and it was immediately obvious who would get it,” he smiles. “From the moment Prost put his backside in that seat, it was his: you could tell just from the way he left the pit lane. To say he took to it like a duck to water would be an understatement. You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to see how good he was. The difference between him and Cogan was night and day.”
What a rocket scientist might not have known was that Prost’s employment at McLaren, straight from Formula 3, was as much a political move as a racing decision. “Prost was very much Marlboro’s choice, while Cogan had been selected by Teddy Mayer,” explains John, “but as things unfolded Mayer saw that Prost could be a major asset in his attempts to ward off the alliance between Marlboro and Ron Dennis which was pushing to take over ownership of the old Bruce McLaren team. So the politics that flowed from this came not from Prost himself, but from the struggle between Mayer and the Marlboro/Dennis camp. And it made life difficult for me as the senior driver.”
And that was not the whole problem. The McLaren M29 was off the pace. “I’d been there a year already. I knew we had a problem with the aero,” explains Watson, “and now I was confronted by this new, young talent. It fazes you, knocks your confidence, and it’s hard to change your ways, especially in the setting up of the car. I don’t say that Prost was a political person then: he just had this outstanding ability and talent, a smooth and easy style of driving. And he was getting the better of me. Ground effects forced a style of driving upon the driver and it worked for Prost.”
Whatever John did to the car, it made no difference. Whatever Alain did to the car, it made an improvement. All that seemed to prompt a mood swing in the team, culminating in Watson arriving at the track one day to find that the mechanics had written ‘John Whatswrong’ in place of his given name on the side of the car.
“No way should the team management have condoned that kind of thing,” he says. “It was hurtful, yes, but worse it was bad management. It was de-motivating for me.” But things would soon take a further turn for the worse.
“Alain was like my little brother,” says Watson, “I’m not a devious person; I don’t need to be a hard man. I felt a friendship for this young guy. When we got to South Africa in that 1980 season Alain went off at the Esses, suffered some whiplash and hurt his wrist. But nobody at McLaren was very sympathetic, so later that evening the French journalist Marie-Claude Beaumont asked me to take him to the hospital: the X-rays showed a broken scaphoid which meant he could be out for six weeks. The team dealt with this poorly, and had to draft in British F3 star Stephen South for Long Beach. And, surprise, surprise, he didn’t qualify.”
Prost came back, as quick as ever, and Robin Herd was brought in to work on the aerodynamics of the M29. Herd’s review of the car resulted in lots of new tweaks, all of which went straight onto Prost’s car.
“I was seriously marginalised at this time,” says Watson with characteristic honesty, “I found myself on my back foot. I had failed to qualify at Monaco in the M29B which didn’t help, and Prost was being hailed as the new superstar. So when the new car arrived at Zandvoort it was given to Prost.”
But the M30 wasn’t the panacea it was expected to be. The uprated M29C was in fact a more effective car and it was one that Watson found to his liking.
“Suddenly I went from a car I couldn’t drive to a car that suited me, and I was back at my normal operating level. I had two good races while Alain had two bad races and my confidence came back,” he explains, “but Prost was now being elevated to superstar status. He had real ability and a high level of talent, yes, and he was a man on the move.”
At the end of the 1980 season, for the final races in America and Canada, John Barnard joined the team and Watson admits he benefited greatly from having a new engineer on his car, taking fourth place in Montreal.
“People like Barnard brought a new level of engineering into F1,” he says, “and he made changes that I thought were never going to work. I told him ‘you can’t do that’ but he was always right. I was part of the ’70s generation, but people like Barnard were the new ’80s generation. He didn’t have race experience, like Mayer, but he was clever.”
By the time of the final race of the year at Watkins Glen, rumours were rife that Prost was on his way to Renault. Certainly the US Grand Prix would not have tempted him to stay at McLaren.
“He crashed pretty heavily in practice,” explains Watson. “He took a bang on the head and went to the medical centre. Nobody from the team seemed concerned so I went to see him. He was my friend, my team-mate; that’s how it was. He told me something broke on the car and that he was never going to drive for McLaren again. He told me ‘John, you will be number one driver for McLaren in 1981’. So it was.”
The next time Watson and Prost were sharing space in the headlines, the atmosphere was rather different. Fast forward to the end of 1983.
“He was fired by Renault – nobody knows exactly why – but they showed him the door at the end of ’83. Marlboro couldn’t get him into Ferrari but they saw a possibility at McLaren. My contract was due to expire, so it was easy for Marlboro to say ‘thanks, John, but no thanks, and welcome back Alain Prost.’ I never felt any ill will towards Alain, though. Life has its ups and downs. F1 is a jungle and you live by the laws of the jungle.”
Their last race together was in 1985 when Watson was called back by McLaren to fill in for an injured Niki Lauda in the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. Team-mate Prost was no longer the little brother, keen to impress and to learn. Now the tables were turned and John needed help to get back up to speed after nearly two seasons out [in sports cars].
“This was the turbo era, remember,” he smiles. “They were dragsters. You could just about get them round the corners and then you squirted them down the straights. I had to learn about the TAG Porsche engine and of course the car. Alain came over to Donington Park when I tested the car for Brands, spent a couple of hours with me, then took off back to Paris.”
The verdict then, Watson on Prost: “He is an exceptionally complicated man,” says Watson, “and when the chips were down he could always drag a performance out of a car. He had an economy of style: his cars always came back in perfect condition. He pushed people to create opportunities for him, like Michael Schumacher, and he was up to speed in the art and craft of politics by the time he went to Ferrari. I mean, poor Nigel Mansell thought Caligula had come alive again when he was with Prost at Maranello. He just couldn’t fathom out the politics at all, while Prost was always working away behind the scenes.
“He should have won more than four world champion-ships, but something changed in Alain when Ayrton Senna came to McLaren. This took him outside his comfort zone, pushed him into taking risks which he wouldn’t normally take. I spoke to Senna at Willi Dungl’s fitness camp in Austria at the beginning of that year and he asked about Prost. I told Senna ‘McLaren is Prost’s team, so you need to bear that in mind.’ Ayrton said ‘No, I’m going to raise the level, raise the game physically, mentally and in every way.’ And, as I say, something changed in Alain after that.
“And then the collapse of Prost Grand Prix destroyed him emotionally. Some people were left with a bitter taste in the mouth, with a very disillusioned opinion of the man. I’m sad that his career ended that way.”